LET us examine the status of Biafra to determine whether or not it is dead – as some people have posited – and whether or not it has been buried – as some others think. Biafra was a territory so named by Lt. Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who was the Military Governor of the Eastern Region in the 60s. He was miffed by the pogrom against Easterners especially Ibos in Northern Nigeria and decided, after a series of fruitless talks, to take that territory out of Nigeria.
Col. Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian Head of State, in what could be considered a political masterstroke created 12 states, giving the minorities of the Eastern Region who had agitated under the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers movement for the states of their own a chance to determine their own affairs.
On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu declared the then Eastern Region a Republic of Biafra. Gowon declared war against Biafra which lasted for 30 months. On January 12, 1970, Philip Effiong, Ojukwu’s Chief of General Staff, surrendered to the Federal Government while Ojukwu fled to Ivory Coast “in search of peace.” The people hitherto called, named and addressed as Biafrans then became Nigerians again. From that day, Biafra was considered dead. But no one was sure if it was buried until Ojukwu returned to Nigeria in 1982, a pardoned man, contested an election to the Senate under the NPN and the party arranged for his defeat.
The party wanted to ensure that his fabled popularity was buried along with Biafra and he had no chance of making any noise about it. Besides, at that time the Nigerian armed forces seemed unprepared to accept that a man who waged war against his fatherland should sit in the hallowed chambers of the Senate. Ojukwu got the message and never sought any elective office again. But it was obvious that he was still a force to reckon with. Part of the evidence was that a very whistle-worthy girl, beautiful beyond beautiful, leggy, silver spoon in her mouth, fell headlong for this man to the discomfiture of her father. Her name: Bianca Onoh. They both got married in a society wedding that tickled Abuja enormously.
While Ojukwu was alive, a group had emerged that called itself the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). It was led by Ralph Uwazuruike, a lawyer who trained in India and thought he could, like Mahatma Gandhi did for India, win independence for Biafra by peaceful protest. He forgot that the circumstances were different. Gandhi’s own was a protest against colonialists, his own a protest against a sovereign nation that had spilled blood earlier to defend its sovereignty.
Uwazuruike didn’t also acknowledge that the lay of the land had changed. The nine states that constituted Biafra now had their governors firmly in control of their affairs. Also in the unlikely event that the Ibos who had suffered monumental personal and corporate losses during the war wanted an encore, the minorities who fought against the Ibos for their self-determination were not ready to return to Egypt after crossing the Red Sea and were already on their way to the Promised Land, Israel.
The Biafra we knew was a single territory governed by one man. The Biafra of Uwazuruike’s dream is nine territories governed by nine men. But that doesn’t mean that Biafra was or is dead, No. it is not dead, not buried because Biafra was and is about injustice. When not redressed injustice never truly dies and if it dies it cannot truly be buried, and if it is buried it can surely rise again. That is what is happening now. Somebody else has joined the fray. His name: Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and director of the pirate Radio Biafra. On account of his exploits, he has been cooling his feet at some detention centre for some weeks now.
Many of the young men and women who are hoisting the Biafran flag, tearing Nigerian flags and passports in an Obasanjo-like fashion, were not born during the war but they have heard the stories of woe, of starvation, of a series of injustices that make them want to pull out.
They have heard that whatever amount of money anybody had in Biafra he could only be paid 20 pounds on returning to Nigeria. They have heard about the indigenisation policy of the Gowon administration which seemed to be aimed at shutting out the impoverished former Biafrans from the lucrative business hitherto run and owned by expatriates. They know about the civil servants who never regained their positions on their return to Nigeria. They have witnessed the lopsided creation of local governments by the military authorities who seemed to treat the South East as “conquered people.” They are witnesses to the fact that all the six geopolitical zones in the country have six states each (one even has seven) except the South East which has five. No matter what criteria were used this is injustice, pure and simple.
They complain as youths in several other places do about low Federal Government investment in their states. They complain about the poor roads and they remember that as Governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu had an epic encounter with President Olusegun Obasanjo. Of course, roads are bad in almost all zones of the country which is why some of the car companies print rude stickers that state “specially built for Nigerian roads.”
The Biafran agitators also complain that they have lost lots of property in their sojourn in various parts of the country especially the North. They remember that they asked for three trillion naira reparation at the Oputa panel in 2001 and they were simply ignored. They asked for it again at the 2014 national conference and no one looked in their direction.
This litany of complaints constitutes an inflammable cocktail which is boiling over. There are those who believe that the Ibos have made, like most other ethnic groups, a substantial contribution to the development of Nigeria. They are an unmatchable entrepreneurial group who are ready to work and build the territories in which they live and make their living. That is why, like the Jews, the Ibos are all over the place.
The Ibos are ready to point out that three of their states namely; Imo, Abia and now Anambra are in the elite club of crude oil producers and have, therefore, made their own substantial contribution to the development of Nigeria and therefore deserve a bigger slice of the national cake and a prominent place at the dinner table. If they didn’t get it from the past governments they probably believe it is because their activities did not gain enough traction to gain enough attention from the powers that be. Now, it seems their activities have reached a point of denouement.
Those who object to their activities have asked: what do the Ibos want? The agitators have answered: self-determination. Their critics tell us that the Ibos have had four Senate presidents, two Central Bank governors, two Inspectors General of Police, a Chief of Army Staff, two number two citizens and one Head of State even if for a fleeting period of six months. What remains is a seat at the Aso Villa. But the agitators don’t think their exertions are about a single issue, the issue of the Presidency.
The agitators apparently think they are not taken seriously because they are not violent. That is a mistake. President Buhari seems to make that mistake, too, by calling the agitators “jokers,” “because our country has witnessed a lot of internal strife, survived a civil war and has remained united.” When the President talks dismissively about these agitators and magisterially about how united the country is I wonder whether his advisers are briefing him properly.
This is not my idea of a united country. I saw quite a lot of polarisation at the National Conference in 2014. Every major issue brought out the beast in the ethnic irredentists who were ready to draw their daggers. And the conference ended in a near fiasco as it did in 2005 on the issue of resource control. Today, we have added the issue of Fulani herdsmen combating farmers, the Shiites tackling the Army, the insurgents bombing anywhere in sight. We have hordes of workers not paid for many months, an army of youths not finding jobs. And now the Biafran agitators who are dishing out hate messages, from their pirate radio, blocking highways, disrupting businesses, planting their flags, tearing Nigeria’s flags and massing up everywhere waiting for the security agencies. They are waiting to be arrested, not running away. Some of them are probably ready for the worst. This is not my idea of a united country. Let no one make any mistake about it. This is a very disunited country and the agitation is a very serious business.